II. The High Priestess



Meaning:  Mother of Mothers.  Female power.  The Book of Life, the Law of Nature, the world where the light of science shines and reveals.  The balance that is hidden in plain sight, in everything.

Reversed: Ignorance of the ways of nature.   Trying to escape the inevitable.  Avoiding the truth, or by concealing the truth causing harm.  Censoring or oppressing another.




The Papess, or female Pope, is a woman wearing the Pope’s crown.  A brilliant jab at the obvious, the depiction of a female Pope points to a curious fact throughout the history of Christian life – no woman could hold such power.  Some mention a Pope Joan, or the Bogomil, as a possible identity, but the more natural answer is that the Trumps are make a point of putting the Pope in drag.   In the French style, the title La Pances is sometimes used, which means “The Belly”.  In the Swiss deck, this card became Juno, a warlike mother goddess of the ancients, because they were strictly against Rome as a whole.  In all, a card loved by most Tarot readers as the High Priestess, she is often described as the epitome of wisdom, but this gets confusing considering the next card is very much aligned with Minerva, Athena, and wisdom goddesses.  I think these two cards, High Priestess and the Empress, are forever poetically scrambled.

This curious card is about honesty, the first clear Humanist challenge to the world presented early on.  Where has the spiritual authority of a woman gone, what does a Papess even mean?  It is said that once upon a time, one smacked their hand against the earth when you swore solemnly, in the same way that Vesta was once said to create whatever she wished.  Or you swore on the Three, or the Tripod, a reference to the Oracle of Delphi and its guardian mother snake, Python.  Amon the Germans the number 3  appeared in love tokens and meant True.

Roman, Vestal Virgins tending the Home FIre
Roman, Vestal Virgins tending the Home Fire.

The distinction with the next card is simple, the Papess is the animation and tenacity of life, the power of life.  She is a mother goddess, from a time when many goddesses, including mothers, were Virgin in one way or another, because the word relates to the mysteries of creation, life, and were in everyday use as words for the different ages of women.  The Empress is about the power of culture, another kind of life, with another kind of goddess.  If you think about it, placing a seed in the soil it germinates and sprouts as though it were asexual, though we all know today it is not.  The earth takes the dormant seed and returns with moving, growing life.  This something for nothing was the very essence of virgin birth to the heathen mind.

House of the Vestal Virgins, Rome
House of the Vestal Virgins, Rome
Casa Vestali.  Note the Rotunda, a feature of Isis Basilicas, and the baptismal in the center of the garden.
Casa Vestali. Note the Rotunda for the tending of the sacred fire, also a feature of Isis Basilicas, and the baptismal in the center of the garden.

In Great Mother temples like that of Vesta in Rome, women could dedicate themselves for protection from marriage or to take on orphans, who vowed to remain asexual.  But the Mother religion more importantly accepted virginity as an offering from the common people.  Unmarried women came to the precincts to learn about sex, and offered themselves as ritual prostitutes to as many or as few as they wished, a popular practice among some cultures to prepare young women for marriage, and a kind of safe love motel for the young.  Other key centres of old with this kind of practice, also known refuges for women, were Corinth and Ephesia.

Rebecca Boatman, Sacrifice - Janis and the Vestal Virgins
Rebecca Boatman, Sacrifice – Janis and the Vestal Virgins

Vesta is almost certainly who is depicted, among candidates if the Papess were an old goddess with Hera, and Isis, who was a virgin also.  As a root virge meant a lot of things, like becoming, arriving, birth, and also growth, or branching, so virga also stood for the stick the Romans whipped you with.  It alludes to creative power, and in another time, a virgin could simply have meant a young girl, a woman yet to become a wife, or yet to be a mother.  The story of this word reveals a fascinating transformation in words for women into restrictive, rather than descriptive uses as goddess culture was eclipsed.

The relevant Renaissance atmosphere involves a Vatican deeply involved in the dispute and trade of territory and rights, as much a competitor to the Nobles as the merchants and developing middle class.  Within itself, competition for various factions, and the Monastic Orders, paints a picture of a power structure up for grabs.  The time period of the Tarot takes place in this setting, the simple existence Papess is a political challenge to patriarchal Roman structure without question, or at the least a jeer.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, c 1910
Frank Cadogan Cowper, Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI

In my fanciful imagination the the Papess card is the first of four cards that are an assertion of a kind of historic progress of governance, beginning with the Papess as the Mother culture and therefore Matriarchy.  It is followed by the Empress, or Civilization, a balanced culture.   Then the Emperor, which is the transformation into Patriarchy that follows Empire, and lastly the Pope, which is the Oligarchy that gives all the others the right to exist.  We will see as we read along how this pans out.

Most routinely in the occult, the card is associated with Isis.  There are many historian objections to this, largely the lack of real information about Old Egypt in that day.  But Isis had reached all the way to England through the Empire, and though a mystery cult and therefore quite unclear who she was to people in the late Middle Ages, just names to a ruin for most really, her image did continue to be associated with an underground Black Madonna following that was generally thought to be her rites continued, reflecting a continued awareness of her among the learned.  We see in Pompeii that her cult had grown quite prosperous in the late Roman days.

Temple of Isis, reconstruction, Szombathely, Hungary
Temple of Isis reconstruction, Szombathely, Hungary. These minimal ruins were practically all that was authentically Egyptian that the inventors of the Tarot had access to.

So in this I agree, in that she is as good a mother figure as any.  But there’s more credibility to her being in the mix than not.  In the earliest days of Christianity, the Iseum or Temple of Isis was all the rage in Rome, which had grown with the popularity of Greco-Egyptian culture, with stars like Marc Anthony and Cleopatra and the ghost of Alexander still intriguing us today.  And it is known that the Ankh and Cross bear close similarities, as well as the role of Isis in healing the poor and sick, an early hospital, especially for women during the precarious process of labor, and bylines like, “I am the blood and the resurrection,” which were clues to her two strongest roles – motherhood and returning the dead to life.  She was the virgin mother epitomized, who gave birth to the promised child Horus (Harpocrates), a baby born on a lotus, who was the reincarnation of her dead husband Osirus, the rebirth of the Sun.  She is the late crystallization of the once typically goddess role of granting the right to Kingship.

peutinger-table-map-Rome2sicilyTabula Peutingeriana

Though little was known to the Renaissance Humanists about even these late days in Egypt, we do know that the Iseum, for a time, was regarded as on equal with the first Christian Basilicas.  A few still appear on a greater map of Christian outposts, one of the earliest Maps of the World to show China, the Tabula Peutingeriana or Peutingerian Map from the 1st Century CE, where Iseums are clearly marked.  Without question this was a time of competing comparative religions, and Isis was in the Roman mix.

Plan of Hadrian's Iseum
Plan of Hadrian’s Iseum
Caryatid in Egyptian Dress, Pergamon, Turkey
Caryatid in Egyptian Dress, Pergamon, Turkey

The Red Basilica, probably built by Hadrian at Pergamon was devoted to the Egyptian export religion and the great wealth the expanded Empire’s inclusion of Egypt had brought. It is unique for being built over a river flowed beneath its precinct walls, suggesting a mystery rite of river baptism.  This Basilica was one of the first to be converted to a Church by the Byzantines.   It is fair conjecture that some, if not all, of the old Iseums throughout Europe may have formed a distinct type of Church, possibly more sympathetic to the fate of Goddess culture and potential sources of Humanist intrigue.  Churches North, East and West of Rome had distinct cultures and their own interests in easing off the dependency on Latin impositions of history and government.

Red Basilica, Historic Floorplans
Red Basilica, Historic Plans